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Vol. LXII, No. 28
 
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
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ON A ROLL: Princeton University running star Ashley Higginson rolls to the finish line last October on the way to placing ninth at the Ivy League Heptagonal Cross Country championship meet. This week, Higginson, a rising sophomore, will be competing in the 5,000 meters for the U.S. team at the 2008 World Junior Track Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

Precocious PU Distance Star Higginson Looking to Roll at World Junior Meet

Bill Alden

While many distance runners nervously set their watches or re-tie their shoes as part of their pre-race routine, Ashley Higginson takes a radically different approach.

The Princeton University running star customarily does cartwheels as she rolls to the starting line.

“I just like doing it,” said Higginson of her unusual ritual. “I get nervous before big races; if I can do a cartwheel before a race, shows I’m not taking it too seriously. If I start taking it too seriously, then maybe it’s time to stop.”

This week, the rising sophomore hopes to roll overseas as she competes in the 5,000 meters for the U.S. team at the 2008 World Junior Track Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

The bubbly Higginson is understandably excited about the meet in Poland, which is her first international competition.

“It’s amazing, it’s great to be representing your country when you are under 20,” said Higginson, who qualified for the world meet by placing second in the 5,000 in a time of 16:33.83 last month at the USA Junior Track and Field Championships at in Columbus, Ohio.

“I want to be able to stay with the pack; I don’t want to pull back late in the race. I think I have my body prepared.”

Higginson has been used to being at the head of the pack since her days as a standout at Colts Neck High, where she won the state championship in the 3,200 and helped the Cougar cross country team place fourth at the Nike Team Nationals.

After playing soccer in her freshman year at Colts Neck, Higginson devoted herself to track and cross country.

“I did winter and spring track my freshman year and the next year, I ran all three seasons.” recalled Higginson.

“I was starting to have success and I realized that in individual sports, you can get yourself better. You are your biggest critic. There was also a support system through the team. I was motivated individually and that helped me do better in school and socially.”

It didn’t take long for Higginson to set her sights on someday running for Princeton. “It was on my mind starting with my sophomore year,” said Higginson, who also considered Georgetown, Duke, and Villanova.

“We had an indoors meet at Jadwin and I went to their running camp that summer. I got to know Peter [track and cross country head coach Peter Farrell] and the program. I liked being close to school. I also liked that PU was a serious academic school.”

Shortly after arriving at Princeton last fall, Higginson made a serious contribution to the Tiger cross country team. She placed 46th at the “White” Pre-nationals meet to help them to the title and then took ninth at the Ivy League Heptagonal meet as the Tigers won their second straight Heps crown.

The second-team All-Ivy performer capped her season by placing 69th at the NCAA Championships, the second-best finisher on a Tiger squad that took 14th in the team standings.

In order to succeed at the college level right away, Higginson had to step up her intensity.

“It was different,” said Higginson. “My team in high school did cruise miles at mile repeats. At Princeton, we were doing tempo runs for an hour or an hour and 15 minutes. It’s tough being with a group of really fast girls like that. I was doing 70 miles a week in high school. I was doing less at Princeton but the effort on every run is harder. The girls around you motivate you to run harder.”

Even though she is not the top runner at Princeton, Higginson knows that running harder can be a big help to the team.

“More than anything, I learned how important the third, fourth, and fifth runners are to team success,” said Higginson.

“In high school, I was the first or second girl. There is a different responsibility here. We won the Pre-Nats by three points or something like that. I realize you can’t just get lost in the pack. You need to work hard to get that third, fourth, or fifth. It means more since I know the team can do so well.”

Keeping up with the pack was a challenge as Higginson adjusted to her college schedule.

“I used to go to bed at 10 p.m. in high school and get up at 7 a.m,” said Higginson.

“Now I go to bed at 2 a.m. and I need four coffees in the morning to get going. The key adjustment is the schedule; everyday in college is completely different. As great as team is; it is easier to fall into other types of things. There is a bigger commitment to the team, you are traveling a a lot.”

Higginson showed her commitment to the team by coming up with a solid effort at the NCAA Championships

“I did poorly at the regionals; I wanted to rebound from that,” said Higginson.

“I had a lot to prove to my teammates; I wanted to prove that I would show up for the race that day. You have to be ready for the crowded pack, the jumble and the pushing.”

Applying some of the lessons she learned from the NCAA meet, Higginson went on to win the 5,000 meters at the Ivy Heps Outdoor Track Championships.

“It is exciting to compete in something like that,” said Higginson, who had helped Princeton win the Indoor Heps team title in the winter season.

“I tell my friends that people have been watching the Heps for years. To be a small part of that history is great.”

While Higginson fell short of making history at the NCAA Outdoor Track Championships as she was eliminated in the opening heat, the setback was still a good learning experience.

“I was really happy to get the chance to run in that meet,” said Higginson. “It taught me I may have to change tactics. I want to become one of the girls who can mess with people’s minds; one who can go slow and then pull out a big last mile.”

At the Junior National Meet, Higginson ran from the front as she qualified for the junior world meet.

“It was fast from the beginning and I was happy to be in the lead pack,” said Higginson, who finished just 1.8 seconds behind winner Catherine White of Arkansas.

“I’ve learned that I have to add strength and speed. I need to be able to run 12 laps at 77 seconds be able to speed up when necessary. There is a big difference between running 84 second laps and then speeding up.”

Higginson is hoping to be up to speed once she arrives in Poland. “I’m putting in some good miles and jumping in with a little speed,” said Higginson. “I’m tapering. I want to run a similar time to what I have been running.”

No matter what happens over in Poland, Higginson has come a long way this year.

“I think I have grown so much,” maintained Higginson. “I have learned so much from the other girls academically and what they are doing professionally. I’m learning what it means to be mature and have fun.”

It appears that Higginson is on a roll that isn’t going to end any time soon.

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